Test Drive: 2004 Toyota Solara SE V6 Sport toyota car test drives
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Story and photos by Grant Yoxon

Highway 401 may be the fastest way of driving from Toronto to Ottawa, but it is no fun. At the best of times it is boring, more often aggravating and at its worst, downright dangerous.

So when the three lane section ended with a sign reading “this lane must exit,” I did, turning toward Port Hope and Highway 2.

After a day of driving Toyota’s new Solara mid-size coupe around southern Ontario, including more than enough time on congested freeways – I was ready for a change of pace. And so was the 2004 Toyota Solara SE V6 Sport that Toyota provided to get me back to Ottawa. I could thank Air Canada for this good fortune.

Highway 2 follows the hillsides overlooking Lake Ontario and the Bay of Quinte, from Port Hope to Belleville. It is named the Apple Route, as the orchards are plentiful in this region.

It is on this kind of road, meandering two lane black top, where the pace is leisurely and the views spectacular, that the Solara is best enjoyed.

Test Drive: 2004 Toyota Solara SE V6 Sport toyota car test drives

Test Drive: 2004 Toyota Solara SE V6 Sport toyota car test drives
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Certainly, it is a comfortable freeway cruiser, with a well-insulated cabin to block out the roar of passing 18 wheelers, even the roar of its own 3.3 litre V6 under wide-open throttle. Add in some tunes from the 270 watt, JBL 6-speaker audio system, a smooth shifting 5-speed automatic transmission and you have the perfect environment for the daily commute into Toronto.

Thankfully, that’s not my destiny. But neither is cruising the countryside. I’m grateful to steal a few hours to drive along a country road with the windows and the sunroof open. In the Solara, it feels just right. I would have preferred a convertible, but for that I will have to wait until next February.

The new Solara is built at Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky plant alongside the Camry. Previously, the Solara was built in Cambridge, Ontario. Canada’s loss has also been its gain – Solara production was moved south of the border to make room for increased Corolla and Matrix production, as well as the Lexus RX 330, the first Lexus to be built outside of Japan. The changes have resulted in an additional 700 jobs at the Cambridge plant.

The Solara is an important car for Toyota. Intermediates account for one third of all new car sales and Toyota is counting on the Solara to help make the Camry/Solara combination the number one seller in the segment.


Three models, two engines

Test Drive: 2004 Toyota Solara SE V6 Sport toyota car test drives
2004 Toyota Solara SE

Test Drive: 2004 Toyota Solara SE V6 Sport toyota car test drives
2004 Toyota Solara SLE

Test Drive: 2004 Toyota Solara SE V6 Sport toyota car test drives
2004 Toyota Solara SLE
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The new Solara is the first major re-design since the car was introduced in 1999. There are three models and two engine choices. The Base SE has the Camry’s 2.4 litre, all-aluminum inline four cylinder engine, the same engine that powered the previous Solara.

Standard equipment is extensive: six-speaker AM/FM/CD sound system with steering wheel-mounted audio controls, air conditioning, 60/40 split folding rear seat, power windows with driver’s side auto up and down, keyless entry, power door locks, dual power remote heated mirrors, electrochromic rear view and driver’s side mirror, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, cruise control and vehicle information display. Wheels are 16 inch alloys. The base manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) for the SE 4-cylinder is $26,800, $1,375 less than the 2003 SE.

To this, the SE V6 adds premium JBL sound with 6-disc CD changer, 8-way power adjustable driver’s seat, power tilt and sliding moonroof, 17 inch alloy wheels and rear spoiler, and has an MSRP of $30,900.

A Sport option package, with an MSRP of $32,700 gives buyers Sport fabric seat material, coloured full skirt package, leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, aluminum pedals, tuned (firmer) suspension and white on black gauges.

The SLE V6 adds luxury features like automatic climate control, leather seats, heated front seats, faux wood trim, leather wrapped steering wheel and shifter knob, digital compass, cargo net and integrated garage door opener, as well as vehicle stability control, traction control and side curtain airbags. The MSRP is $35,800, $1,510 more than the 2003 model.


Driving impressions

My ride home was an �Absolutely Red’ SE V6 Sport, a Solara intended for people who like to drive. Tougher and more attractive fabric on the seats, a full skirt package, aluminum pedals, leather steering wheel and shifter knob are the things you see. Underneath is a firmer suspension – higher rate springs, struts and stabilizer bars – to complement the new aluminum 3.3 litre V6 engine.

This is the same engine that has recently made an appearance in the Toyota Sienna minivan and Lexus RX 330 sport utility, and which is bound to show up in more Toyota/Lexus products in the near future. In the Solara it is rated at 225 horsepower at 5,600 r.p.m. and 240 pound-feet of torque at 3,200 r.p.m., slightly less than the Sienna and RX 330 (230 hp and 242 lb-ft of torque).

Test Drive: 2004 Toyota Solara SE V6 Sport toyota car test drives

Test Drive: 2004 Toyota Solara SE V6 Sport toyota car test drives
Click image to enlarge

This is a smooth, quiet engine that requires a heavy foot to motivate but will respond enthusiastically when pressed. Toyota estimates a 0-60 miles per hour time of 7.1 seconds, or about 7.4 seconds to 100 kilometres per hour, literally translated. Fuel economy is slightly better than the 195 hp 3.0 litre engine it replaces.

It’s plenty of power for most chores and passing is quick and easy, particularly using the manual shift mode. When selected, the five speed electronically controlled transmission will automatically drop into fourth, a flick back puts the transmission in third and the r.p.m into the power band. It’s actually quicker and more civilized than mashing the accelerator and forcing the transmission into a lower gear.

Toyota has no plans to introduce a manual transmission. Despite having a 5-speed manual in the 4-cylinder Camry, Toyota officials say they couldn’t sell enough manual equipped Solaras to make it economically viable.

The suspension used on both SE and SLE models is virtually the same – a highly modified version of the Camry’s fully independent MacPherson strut suspension, with front and rear stabilizer bars and a front strut tower brace. SE Sport versions get stiffer tuning, but the emphasis is still on ride comfort.

Driving both V6 and 4-cylinder Solaras equipped with the Sport package through a slalom course set up on an airport runway near Niagra on the Lake showed that the Solara corners flat, with little body roll – less with the V6 than 4-cylinder. The Solara’s engine-speed sensing, power-assisted steering was responsive with a fairly quick turn-in and good on-centre feel.


Distinctive styling

Test Drive: 2004 Toyota Solara SE V6 Sport toyota car test drives

Test Drive: 2004 Toyota Solara SE V6 Sport toyota car test drives

Test Drive: 2004 Toyota Solara SE V6 Sport toyota car test drives
Click image to enlarge

Although the Solara is based on the Camry, it has its own distinct personality, both inside and out. The Solara has a unique dash, gauges, centre console and seating. SE and SLE models get light coloured gauges, while Sport models receive their own white on black gauges. Trim in SE and SE Sport models is black plastic, while SLE models get faux wood trim.

One thing the Solara does share with Camry is its longer wheelbase and wider interior. Leg, head, shoulder and hip room have all been increased over the previous model. Rear headroom is tight for passengers over six foot, but ample rear leg room helps compensate. Front seats in all models are broad and supportive, with good adjustment either manually or powered. Thigh support is particularly good. SLE models have additional adjustment with lumbar support.

The Solara doors are big, to allow easy access to the rear seats. To prevent parking lot damage, the doors open in three stages instead of two.

The Solara has high shoulders, sweeping upward to the rear. Side glass is narrow giving the car a deceptive low roof stance, although interior headroom, even with the power sun roof is good. The styling is complemented by dramatic headlight and taillight treatments, a chrome grille and integrated front and rear bumpers. Several people commented to me that the Solara’s rear styling reminded them of the Lexus SC 430.


Safety

Standard safety equipment includes dual stage front air bags and seat-mounted side airbags. A sensor in the front passenger seat determines if the occupant is an adult or child and shuts off the air bag if the occupant weighs less than 34 kilograms (75 pounds). The information centre displays whether the airbag is turned on or off. Side curtain airbags are provided on the SLE model only.

Test Drive: 2004 Toyota Solara SE V6 Sport toyota car test drives
Click image to enlarge

Three point seat belts are available at all five seating positions. Front seat belts have pre-tensioners and force limiters. New this year is an adjustable seat belt comfort guide. The guide arm pivots and slides to provide both vertical and horizontal adjustability.

Other safety features include a new headliner and pillar structures that will deform if they are struck, reducing the danger of head injuries to occupants. The Solara is also equipped with a tire pressure warning system that alerts the driver when tire pressure falls below 21.8 pounds per square inch. Brakes are four wheel discs with anti-lock and electronic brake force distribution.


Competitors

There are not a lot of intermediate coupes to choose from. Principal competitors include the Honda Accord coupe ($25,200 – $33,600) and Mitsubishi Eclipse ($23,857 – $36,037), which offer manual transmissions for both four and six cylinder models, and the Chevrolet Monte Carlo ($27,830 – $30,370) with a choice of two V-6 engines.


Verdict

With fresh styling and a new platform based on the Camry sedan, the 2004 Toyota Solara is well equipped with standard comfort and convenience features. Although sporty in nature, it is not a hard-edged sport coupe, but a comfortable tourer.


Technical Data: 2004 Toyota Solara SE V6 Sport

Base price (SE 4 cyl.) $26,800
Base price (SE V6 Sport) $32,700
Freight $1,100
Price as tested $33,810
Type 5-passenger, two-door mid-size coupe
Layout transverse engine, front-wheel drive
Engine 3.3 Litre V6, 24-Valve, DOHC, VVT-I
Horsepower 225 at 5,600 r.p.m.
Torque 240 lb.-ft. at 3,200 r.p.m.
Transmission 5-speed automatic with sequential “multi-mode” shifter
Tires P215/55R17 all-season radials
Curb weight 1,550 kg (3,417 lbs)
Wheelbase 2,720 mm (107 in.)
Length 4,889 mm (192.4 in.)
Width 1,815 mm (71.5 in.)
Height 1,425 mm (56.1 in.)
Trunk space 391 litres (13.8 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City – 11.7 L/100 km (24 mpg)
  7.4 L/100 km (38 mpg)
Warranty 3 years/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 years/100,000 km